Since 2012 the Royal Horticultural Society has been hosting ‘National Gardening Week’, a time for all-ages to get outside and engage with gardening. This year their theme is ‘the joy of gardening’ and it includes the opening of four new RHS Community Gardens across the UK.
Each project has been announced on the BBC’s The One Show. In Huntingdon, England the grant is transforming a local park while in Paisley, Scotland a former donkey paddock is becoming an accessible garden, in Blaenavon, Wales they are building a pollinator friendly garden to serve the local community.
Randalstown appeared on our screens as Northern Ireland’s chosen project on April 12 when Gloria Hunniford and chosen garden designer Johnny Knox went to surprise the group. Around £50,000 is provided for hard landscaping costs, design, and plants with a further £5,000 per year to upkeep for three years and funding for one group member to gain an RHS Level 2 qualification.
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Each garden will have a grand opening on May 2 – which is dubbed ‘Garden Day’ – where communities will get a first glimpse at their restored spaces. I spoke to Tidy Randalstown’s chairperson Helen Boyd and volunteers to see what their project does for the community.
Helen spoke about the inclusion work the group has already completed and how this project will move that further. The group began as a few concerned residents who were tired of litter and graffiti.
They now have about 20 regular volunteers and in the last year the group recorded over 8,000 hours of work, the equivalent of four and a half full-time workers. Helen told me “you can imagine how different the place looks with that amount of work. We’ve been really blessed with tremendous accolades,” which include Ulster in Bloom awards, Best Kept Town in Ireland and Britain in Bloom.
The group is very involved in the local community. Their main partner school is St Benedicts College, but they have had previous projects that involved Parkhall Integrated College and Antrim Grammar School. Their ‘Young Citizens of the Future’ project with St Benedicts College, funded by the Police Property Fund, has been supported by the school and the wider community.
It’s not only young people who are set to benefit from the RHS project. Senior citizens, many from the Maine Fold, have plans to use the garden for their motorized scooters. “It’s an ideal town for getting out and about, but there aren’t enough social spaces which have some size to them. [With the new garden] there could be a group on one end and someone else using the other end,” explained Helen.
Environmentally conscious planting and consideration of architectural surroundings is very important to the group. “We’re really interested in the environment – it’s a big thing for us, we’re trying to enhance what is already here,” explained Helen.
These considerations are echoed in the plans drawn up by RHS judge and garden designer Johnny Knox. Johnny explained how Tidy Randalstown’s application fit the bill in terms of what the RHS were looking to develop. “The gardens they had were little pocket gardens and there wasn’t really a central point or hub – that was where the RHS could help.”
Johnny explained how his team approached the design with a question “how do we slow people down as they go across the bridge? How do we make people happy to dwell in this space?”
“We’ve created a lot of pollinator type planting and prairie style planting to [give] a nice performance of color most of the year. Points of interest along the way and a lot more seating provision lets people spend more time on the bridge.”
Metal arches scaled off an old railway carriage will be coated in brass and act as an art installation that gives a ‘nod to the history of it being an old railway viaduct’. Johnny said: “At the minute when you’re down on the street you don’t see very much on the viaduct – it’s kind of a horizon view.
“We’re hoping the brass arches will poke their heads above the parapet and give a nice sense of the historical view. There’s an opportunity to get perennial plants which are quite low maintenance and can give a lot of extended performance throughout the growing season. “
Johnny continued, there is a “natural spin off where it’s good for the environment but it’s also good for the aesthetic and the user experience.” The space is being elevated from a grass strip to “an inclusive space which gives every user a sense of ownership,” he said.
“We’ve kind of coined the garden ‘elevation’ and I think that’s my key undertone. We are elevating the garden, we are elevating the space beyond what it was originally intended for and we’re giving it back to the community because I think historically it was used for moving people and moving goods and I think what we’re doing now is repurposing it into a space that can be used by everybody, an uplifting space to be on.
Johnny said it was nice to surprise the group on The One Show with Gloria Hunniford. He added: “It’s something the community has a lot of pride in both from the historic perspective and from the prospect of the garden unlocking its potential.”
That local pride is very evident. If you fetch up in Randalstown on a Monday or Wednesday morning you will quickly spot volunteers working in high-vis vests across the various garden spots the group look after around the town.
Helen was full of praise for both the volunteers and community, feeling the garden would be something for them to treasure. She said “It is a wonderful reward for the volunteers who have worked so incredibly hard for years in all weathers. I just feel this is a tremendous boost for those who have helped to put Randalstown on the map horticulturally. This is a community that uses gardening to interact with the rest of the population and now we have this wonderful provision.”
Volunteers Liz Walker and Lawrence Purdy said the community has supported the Tidy Randalstown group. Liz said: “We started off very small and we’ve grown and as we’ve grown, we have got a different skill mix and blend of people together which has allowed us to develop more things. We’ve been able to encourage business , children and older people to get involved.
“Some of them might not physically be able to do a lot of work but even just them coming along with an encouraging word is helpful. After The One Show we were getting all these comments – ‘can I get your autograph’, ‘You’ve done so well’, ‘the town is looking fantastic”.’
Liz also believes the project’s originality caught the eyes of the RHS judges. She said: “We’re very fortunate. It’s very historical. I’ve never heard of putting a garden on a viaduct before.”
Helen expressed gratitude for the support of the council and their sponsors. She added: “On May 2 between 2pm and 4pm we are having the first reveal of the garden and we would love a wide range of people to come. They don’t need to have been involved – this is for everyone. There will be stalls which reflect the joy of gardening [so others can] experience that joy that we do.
“If there’s anyone who lives in Randalstown, who is within traveling distance, who would like to get involved we’d love to hear from them. They can contact us on Facebook or if you see us in town just speak to us.”